Lithuania and the Jews – Some Important Thoughts

There are about 800 Lithuanians recognized by Yad Vashem as being “righteous among the nations”. This is not a small number for a country that has a relatively small population. On the Yad Vashem list of recipients, Lithuanians rank 6th of the almost 50 countries represented.

On the other hand, the experience of the Jews in Lithuania during World War II is about as bad as it gets. Of the more than 200,000 Jews then living in Lithuania, almost 90% were murdered during the time of the German occupation. Less than 25% of those killed were moved from ghettos to concentration and death camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The remainder were simply shot in the streets, in their homes, or in the Lithuanian forests, by SS troops, assisted by large numbers of Lithuanian collaborators.

There had been a substantial Jewish population in the area now constituting the Republic of Lithuania for at least 700 years and, compared to some areas of Europe, during the majority of that time, anti-Semitism was not a major concern. Jewish immigration had been encouraged both by Lithuanian and Polish officials, the Jews were able to engage in commerce, and lived a fairly autonomous life, with the ability to govern their own community and foster their religious and educational development. While parts of the Jewish community became quite wealthy, for the most part, it was, like the rest of the area, impoverished.

When Lithuania became an independent republic after World War I, the Jews and other minorities were given equal rights, as was required by the treaty ending the war and the rules of the League of Nations. During the inter-war period, Jewish life continued, with Jews concentrating on education and with more Jews moving to the main cities, Kaunas (Kovno), and Vilnius (Vilna). Thus, the Jews were living less apart from the remainder of the population, and the Lithuanian and Jewish communities were more in competition with each other commercially, with the Jews, perhaps on account of their educational achievements, often outshining the Lithuanians in the competition. This, along with continual prodding my many Catholic clergymen, increased tensions.

Lithuania, like the other Baltic states, and Poland and today’s Belarus, have been described by author/historian Timothy Snyder, as the “bloodlands”, the place were western Europe (mainly Prussia/Germany) and eastern Europe (Russia) have clashed again and again. It was the inhabitants of these “bloodlands” who became the prime victims of these cataclysmic clashes. It happened in World War I, and of course again in World War II.

As World War II was gearing up, the secret Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement between the USSR and Germany provided both for non-aggression between the parties and for the bifurcation of the bloodlands, with each of the two powers being given unimpeded influence over particular parts of eastern Europe. The land of the Lithuanian republic fell on the Soviet side, and in 1940, the Soviets moved into the country (as well as into parts of Poland) and Lithuania became, in fact, a Soviet puppet state, which meant a Communist state, although still nominally independent.

War itself had not yet touched the country, but (in addition to changing the form of government completely, nationalizing industry and abolishing private property for the most part) the Soviets created a list of persons whom they considered anti-Soviet and dangerous to their rule. These included, as you would imagine, large numbers of the Lithuanian intellectual elite (teachers, professors, journalists, writers, etc), as well as political activists, some members of the clergy, members of the independent Lithuanian army, etc. While there were some Jews in this group, the majority of those targeted were ethnic Lithuanians. And in 1940, approximately 50,000 of these targeted Lithuanian citizens (including wives, children and other family members) were quickly arrested, and deported to Siberian work camps. Conditions in the work camps were terrible (they were in many respects a different type of death camp, typically as deadly as some of the German camps), and many of the deportees never even got as far as the camps, dying on the long trips to the Asian north.

The Soviet occupation of Lithuania, as well as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, did not last very long, and in 1941, the German army moved into Lithuania, forcing the Soviets into retreat. Lithuania was no longer a Communist state…..but what was it?

Now, let’s look at the position of the Jews of Lithuania, and then of the ethnic Lithuanians.

The Jews were caught in the middle. The majority of them probably were not pro-Soviet, but all of them were anti-Nazi. The Jews were terribly afraid that Germany might invade Lithuania – and that this would mean their death, or at least their imprisonment and exile to camps (without having anything to do with individual political activity), The non-Jewish Lithuanians, while certainly not happy being invaded and having their Republic destroyed, were not afraid of the Germans the way the Jews were. They were more afraid of the Soviets; they had already seen what a Communist/Soviet state meant, and had witnessed the significant deportations to Siberia (not then knowing the fate of those exiled); they had reason to believe that life under German occupation would not nearly be as bad for them as life under Soviet rule.

Pro-German elements (which, in effect, were anti-Bolshevik elements) in Lithuania propagandized the population to believe that the Jews were allied with the Soviets. There were, after all, prominent Jews in the Soviet Union, and we know that it is not unusual for right wingers of all types to declare that Communism is a Jewish movement (from Marx forward). So, when the Germans invaded in 1941, it was apparently relatively easy for the Germans to ally themselves with various Lithuanian elements, including Lithuanian para-military movements, in seeking out the Jews for elimination, although the method used (mass murder in the streets) was more extreme (or at least more immediate) than the methods used elsewhere.

As the SS shootings subsided, and the remaining 50,000 or so Jews were herded into the ghettos of Kaunas and Vilnius for what appeared to be a longer term stay, it was not surprising that those Jews who were able to escape the ghetto (I’d suggesting seeing the documentary film “Partisans of Vilna” for a terrific graphic showing of what transpired) often became “partisans” in the vast forests of the country, where they often combined with (sometimes less than comfortably) the Soviet partisans located in the same areas, where they shared the mutual goal of moving the Germans out of Lithuania, and (from the Jews perspective) the less important goal of allowing the Soviets to move back in. From the perspective of the non-Jewish Lithuanians, who believed they could survive under German occupation in a way impossible under Russian occupation, these Jewish partisans were not seen as freedom fighters, but as traitors to Lithuania. Hence, in a perverse way, anti-Semitism among the masses of the country increased.

In 1944, as the war progressed, the Soviets in fact did move back in to control the country and after the war and the Allied conference at Yalta, incorporated Lithuania into the USSR as the Lithuanian Socialist Soviet Republic, where it remained until 1991, when it achieved full independence once again. The bitterness of the Soviet years (which included further deportations to Siberia amongst other things) remains the minds of Lithuanians today, who believe – in large part because of their geographic position in the “bloodlans” that it all could happen again. Lithuania today is strongly pro-western in the hopes that any movement from Russia towards the west, or from its southern neighbor Belarus (still under a Soviet style dictatorship), would be met with outrage and support by the United States and western Europe.

I had mentioned Ruta Sepetys and her book “Shades of Gray”, telling the story (in the form of a fictional narrative) of the Soviet invasion of Lithuania in 1940 and the first Siberian deportations the other day. We were privilaged to attend a presentation by and reception for Ms. Sepetys at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington last night. Her presentation was fascinating, telling the story of how she became aware of the story of the homeland of her grandparents (she herself was born in Michigan and now lives in Tennessee), and thought it was a story that history had forgotten and that needed to be told. Like the Jewish Holocaust, its victims were hesitant to talk about their experience, and in particular during Soviet times, were unable to under fear of being prosecuted for anti-Soviet activities. Thus, the story has not found its way into either the history books or the national narrative.

We spoke with Ms. Sepetys about the relationship of the Jewish victims in Lithuania to that of the Lithuanian victims. One of the speakers at the Embassy (whose name I unfortunately did not catch) was a Lithuanian politician, Jewish, who headed a commission to uncover Soviet crimes in Lithuania and who spoke of how virtually his entire family was wiped out by the Nazis during the Holocaust. “Shades of Gray” does not discuss this Holocaust (which had not yet taken place, as the Germans had not yet come into the country at the time of the deportation of the novel’s protagonists) , but it is clearly something that Ms. Sepetys seems interested in. How the audience (largely Lithuanian) reacts to the Jewish experience during the war, I am not sure (clearly, the Jewish speaker was not treated as a pariah), and how much they know about it is also not clear. People focus on their own traumas and that of their “people” more than on others. But it is clear, thinking and learning about all of this, that everything is very much connected, and that one of the unspoken aspects of the World War II experience in Lithuania is how different the positions of the Jewish and non-Jewish communities were, although they were living through the same period of time at the same place, and how one might rationally favor the Germans and the other the Soviets (in both cases as the lesser of two evils) and wind up being forced to oppose each other, whereas under different circumstances, they could have lived together in toleration and peace.

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